A few days ago, I tried to cancel my mobile phone contract. After dialling customer services and navigating seven keypad options, I was placed in a queue. My call – the voicebot assured me – was important to them. Not so important, however, that there wasn’t time to listen to nine movements of Handel’s Water Music before speaking to a human being.
As the bassoons piped up again, I wondered whether this is how law firms will operate in the future. Over the past year, hundreds of secretaries, personal assistants and business services staff have been laid off in the City. Almost 70 have left Dentons; Fieldfisher has lost 20; 43 have lost jobs at Shoosmiths; and 45 have left Linklaters, after voluntary redundancy was offered to all 225 secretaries based in London. In almost every case, firms have cited the pandemic, homeworking, and a falling demand for administrative support.
The exodus has sparked lots of debate about new dictation tools, better typing skills among lawyers and the promise of artificial intelligence. In essence, with so many digital products available, do solicitors really need the extra human help?
Surprisingly little attention has been paid to the non-lawyers, however. The clients – or potential clients – trying to speak to their solicitors. While my phone bill is pricey, it’s not quite as pricey as legal advice delivered from sparkling City skyscrapers. My annoyance at being held in a queue, therefore, will be nothing compared with that of a client waiting to be put through to a partner, after navigating seven keypad options and an off-shore call centre.
While technology can work wonders for speed and cost-efficiency, it cannot replace the relief at picking up the phone and immediately reaching a person who understands your enquiry. I suspect firms that ignore the importance of this simple interaction will end up losing more than they save – which, in the context of businesses that bring in hundreds of millions pounds a year, cannot be that much. The alternative, of course, is that senior fee earners and partners have to field their own calls, or negotiate the flurry of emails that arrive when the phone goes unanswered.
The mood of the pandemic has been unstable. Employees who loved homeworking back in Lockdown 1 are now craving time back in the office. Virtual hearings for commercial disputes were all the rage back in September 2020, but enthusiasm is dwindling. Attitudes towards secretarial staff may follow a similar trajectory. The novelty of the pandemic is wearing thin, and clients are expecting pre-Covid levels of courtesy and customer service.
Remember: their call is important to you.